Liverpool’s Top 10 Best Central Defenders of All Time

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On Saturday September 21, 2013, Liverpool hosted Southampton with a notable curiosity in their starting XI: Out of the four defenders in red at Anfield, all four of them were center-backs.

Kolo Toure was deployed on the right flank over Andre Wisdom in the absence of Glen Johnson, while Mamadou Sakho, also a specialist central defender, was asked to play on the right given that Jose Enrique had picked up a slight injury.

So with Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Toure, Sakho, Wisdom, Martin Kelly, Tiago Ilori and Sebastian Coates—eight senior central defenders—currently on Liverpool’s books, let’s look back at the great central defenders in the Reds’ illustrious history.

Here are Liverpool’s top 10 best central defenders of all time. Enjoy, and let us know your picks in the comments below.


10. Alex Raisbeck

The first name on our list is probably a name that even the most ardent Liverpool fan might not recognize.

That’s because Alex Raisbeck made his debut for the Reds in September 1898 and was considered the club’s first star player. Signed for a hefty £350 from Stoke City, he led his new side to their first League Championship while also winning successive Second and First Division titles in 1905 and 1906.

He was noted for his speed and skill in the center of defence, and after returning to Scotland following his spell at Anfield, he returned to Liverpool as a scout.


9. Gary Gillespie

After arriving from Coventry City for £325,000, Gary Gillespie initially took his time to bed into the squad, given the outstanding form of the Mark Lawrenson-Alan Hansen partnership.

Eventually, though, after three years, he became a mainstay in the Reds first team and became the first-choice partner for Hansen.

A winner of many trophies during his time at Anfield, Gillespie also scored a notable hat trick in a home match against Birmingham City in 1986.


8. Mark Lawrenson

Gillespie’s predecessor in the heart of the Liverpool defence was Mark Lawrenson, a Republic of Ireland international who was the strength to Alan Hansen’s beauty.

Starting out as a left-back, Lawrenson was known for his tackling, strength and speed, making him a very versatile defensive player in a title-winning Liverpool squad.

Lawrenson ended his Reds career with five league titles, and is now more recognizable as a football pundit on the BBC.


7. Phil Thompson

And Mark Lawrenson’s own predecessor, alongside Alan Hansen (more on him to come) was Red, Phil Thompson, who joined the club as a youngster and made his debut aged 18 in 1972.

Thompson delivered the league title, European Cup, UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup during his time at Liverpool, and was the natural heir to the captain’s armband after then-skipper, Emlyn Hughes, left for the Wolverhampton Wanderers.

After retiring as a player, Thompson returned to Anfield as a coach in Kenny Dalglish’s backroom staff, and also later served as assistant manager and caretaker coach during Gerard Houllier’s reign.


6. Emlyn Hughes

Emlyn “Crazy Horse” Hughes, Phil Thompson’s central defensive partner when the latter came into the team, happened to be the captain who lifted Liverpool’s first two European Cups.

Hughes was an integral part of the successful Liverpool teams in the 1970s, brought to the club by Bill Shankly and becoming an inspirational and popular captain under Bob Paisley.

Besides his strength and tackling, Hughes was also known for his skill and technique, and Shankly duly changed Liverpool’s playing style with Hughes and Thompson marshaling the defence: They would now build from the back, which would remain the Reds’ blueprint to this very day.


5. Jamie Carragher

When it comes to records, Jamie Carragher is second only to Ian Callaghan, having made 737 appearances in a Red shirt over the years and serving as vice-captain at Anfield for 10 years.

Carragher, a boyhood Everton supporter, made his debut in 1996 and was initially known as a versatile defensive utility man before Rafael Benitez saw his potential as a center-back and moved him inside with great success.

After winning a multitude of trophies, including two FA Cups, a Champions League and a UEFA Cup, Carragher retired in the summer of 2013, legendary status intact, to become a respected television pundit.


4. Tommy Smith

“Tommy Smith wasn’t born; he was quarried.” So said Bill Shankly of the Anfield Iron, who was every bit the hard man his name suggested he was.

Smith was a survivor of the first Shankly team, and soon resumed his role as one-half of a formidable defensive partnership with Emlyn Hughes to form a backline in an all-conquering team featuring the likes of Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan.

He lost the Liverpool captaincy to Emlyn Hughes, with whom he had a difficult relationship despite being such a successful partnership, and in his later years scored the second goal in the 1977 European Cup final, bringing home the Reds’ second triumph in the competition.


3. Ron Yeats

Such was the impact and importance of Ron Yeats that legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly later referred to the big Scot as the turning point of the club’s fortunes and the “beginning of Liverpool.”

Arriving from Dundee United, Yeats joined a club that was still in the Second Division. But at the end of his first season, he had led the team back into the First Division and on to greater successes both in England and in Europe.

Known for his formidable size, Yeats was the perfect complement to Tommy Smith in the heart of the Liverpool defence, an inspirational captain and according to Reds goal-scoring legend Roger Hunt, “the best center-half I have ever seen.” Some tribute for some defender.


2. Sami Hyypia

Think of the finest ever Premier League center-backs and foreign arrivals, and the finest ever Liverpool defenders, and you’d be hard pressed not to include Sami Hyypia, who wore his No. 4 shirt and served as captain with distinction.

In 10 seasons at Anfield, Hyypia, who cost a bargain-basement £2.6 million, proved an inspirational signing and leader of men, sharing the stand-in captaincy with Robbie Fowler as he delivered the 2001 treble under Gerard Houllier.

While he eventually passed the captain’s armband to a certain Steven Gerrard, Hyypia’s no-nonsense, yet graceful style of play, and the uncanny timing of his headers led to many a memorable moment for the big Finn, who is now making his name as a bright young manager at German club, Bayer Leverkusen.


1. Alan Hansen

Eight league titles and three European Cups across three decades as a mainstay in the Liverpool defence, under Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalglish. Thus stands the record of legendary defender, Alan Hansen.

Cool, calm and collected, Hansen was an important presence in the Reds defence, and his longevity at Anfield was testament to his impressive ability to read the game and shackle an opposition attack. But we’ll let Paisley have the final word on the greatest central defender to ever play for Liverpool:

“Alan Hansen is the defender with the pedigree of an international striker. He is quite simply the most skillful center-half I have ever seen in the British game…I can’t think more than a couple of players who could beat him over 100 meters. He has both the ability and the patience to launch attacks from deep positions.” Bob Paisley on Alan Hansen


This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.


2 thoughts on “Liverpool’s Top 10 Best Central Defenders of All Time”

  1. Pretty solid list.

    Hyypia was a fantastic centre half, but I’m sure he’d credit Carra and Henchoz. Those two complimented him very well. Still, an absolute stalwart.

    It wash horrible to see the captain’s armband taken from him. Shows what a professional he was to accept it and carry on as he was.

    What is satisfying about this list is that they are not only great players, but great men. Not a bad egg amongst them. Some of them are tough, some of them are technical, and others just showed determination to not let the ball past them, but they all played the Liverpool way. Credit to the club.

    1. I was debating whether or not to include Henchoz on this list, such was his consistency in a Liverpool shirt, but ultimately he fell just short in my mind. Hyypia was a true professional and a leader in every sense of the word – and I’m sure he looks back with pride on that captaincy decision as a springboard for Gerrard to mature and become one of Liverpool’s very best. Gerrard himself and the likes of Houllier would certainly see it that way as well.

      You’re right; I enjoy every feature brief, because it gives me a chance to really dive more deeply into the club’s rich history and pedigree. Hopefully our current crop of defenders will do us proud as well.

      Cheers and thanks for stopping by.

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